In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes opens up to readers about the death of his mother and the effect of photographs on his memories of her. When I read the Winter Garden passages, they provoked a rather painful emotion in me the root of which I couldn’t exactly put my finger on. For the past couple of weeks, I have been wondering why I find this passage so stirring, because I knew there had to be a personal source for the feelings it evoked in me. Then, slowly but surely, the month of February loomed over me and made its presence impossible to ignore. It’s not that I have anything against the month itself, but rather one day. That day is February 4th.
On February 4th, 2010, one of my best friends, Mike, passed away very unexpectedly. My friends and I were all in shock. The wound that it has created in me opens and closes periodically and almost randomly—it lies dormant in me for a while and then at the most unexpected times it rears its ugly head and brings me right back to the moment where I lost my friend and all of the regrets that came after his death. This wound especially reopens during the anniversary of Mikes death, and as this year’s anniversary approached, I finally began to understand what drew me to Barthes’ Winter Garden passage. Because of Mike, I too consider myself a very experienced person in terms of how photographs can affect one’s perception of mortality and memory of lost loved ones.
I understand first hand when Barthes laments that before discovering the Winter Garden picture, he “lived in [his mother’s] weakness…” (71), as this was how he last knew her. However, he realizes with the help of the Winter Garden photo that this weakness was not her essence but rather a natural and inevitable course of life. Barthes writes, “The Greeks entered into Death backward: what they had before them was their past” (71). In other words, what the Greeks did can be paralleled to what photographs do in terms of death. Looking at a past image, you cannot help but see the unchangeable, painful future. Whenever I look at photographs of Mike, it is impossible not to think of him in terms of where he is now, or rather where he is not. He is not in college like the rest of us. He is not going through the stress and excitement of planning his future. However, two years ago, he was. Many photographs, which are meant to preserve happy memories, ironically seem to force us to bring these past memories to the present, and in the case of people who are no longer with us, this means that photos meant to glorify happy moments of that person’s life seem to make the thought of their future deaths all the more painful. This is a very confusing and fascinating paradox that I have realized over the years after Mike’s death. If I want to be reassured, I no longer look at pictures of him. That is, with the exception of one.
There are definitely aspects of my feelings about this photograph that parallel Barthes’ on the Winter Garden photo, especially due to the personal and subjective way I am forced to view it just from my experience. I am attracted to this photo because it openly and boldly confronts the paradox I discussed in terms of photographs and how I remember Mike. When I look at this photo of Mike, whose back is turned away from the camera, I am struck with a sense of entering the moment, watching him walk away rather than watching him pose or “lending” himself to the photograph. (67) It secretly takes a moment that Mike thought he had to himself, and because of this, I see that this is the essence of him as a person. It is the rediscovery of who he is rather than who he supposes himself to be. I see things about his stance that bring me back to being with him immediately. His gait, for example, so distinctively him- the way he had of walking in an almost pigeon toed sway that seemed all too natural and at the same time showed his goofy personality. As Barthes says about his favorite photo, “For once, photography gave me a sentiment as certain as remembrance.” (70).
However, this photo is not, and can never be, just a happy memory of my friend, even though at one time it was. I cannot ignore the way he moves towards the empty space, with his back turned to the viewer. Interestingly enough, when I looked at this photo of Mike before his death, it seemed to be a random and almost humorous moment. In 2010, amidst the worst of my mourning period, it was too painful to even see or think about because the visual foreshadowing was too apparent, too real. But now, in 2012 there is something about this photo that gives me quiet reassurance, probably because it seems to be the most honest record of what Mike’s life was, portraying who he was in essence and at the same time articulating with courage and honesty that he would be leaving us way too soon. Since I have had such different feelings over the years about the photo, I can’t help but always have paradoxical feelings about it—I am touched simultaneously with a deep fondness and a deep sadness when I see it. It is obviously hard to look at this photo. It confronts a lot of feelings that I try to keep dormant in order to get through the ins and outs of everyday life—it reopens that horrible wound. As Barthes later writes, it is an “image that produces Death while trying to preserve life”(92). But, to be fair, I would rather have tension or paradox of emotions than nothing, because it means that through this photo, through this Death, Mike will influence and guide me for the rest of my life.